Madras to Mumbai

I was conflicted about writing this, because I don’t think people should define themselves so narrowly.  In terms of the “land they sprung from.”  But I cannot deny the fact that such an identity exists.  So I wrote it.  Tried to keep it light.

The psychology of a Matunga Tamil

I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri, one half of the Carnatic singing sister duo of Ranjani-Gayatri. “Actually, you should say that I grew up in Matunga, which in many ways is like growing up in an agraharam (an enclave beside a temple, usually occupied by Brahmin priests and their families).”

What is it about Matunga and Chembur that makes these areas a thriving home for south Indian culture?

The sisters grew up in a housing society that was surrounded by four temples. The fabled Sri Shanmukhananda hall was down the hall, figuratively speaking. During Margazhi—15 December-15 January—while the rest of Bombay (now Mumbai) drank bed-tea, Matunga’s citizens would congregate on the streets. Women with dripping wet hair would wait outside housing societies to watch bare-bodied men walking down the street, singing bhajans, clinking kartals (called kinnaram in the south), beating dholaks and tambourines in time to their shaking bellies. “We would circle these mamas (uncles), do namaskaram (prostrate before them) and go in for our morning coffee,” says Gayatri.

Matunga in the 1970s was entirely south Indian. The girls wore long skirts, called pavadai, their oiled, braided hair adorned with flowers. “When I came for college to Chennai, my classmates couldn’t believe that I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri. “I told them that Matunga was different.”

Matunga holds a special place in the imagination of south Indians, because it is the land where our relatives went to make their fortune. They left villages with long, syllable-laden names and returned as posh Bombayites. Suryanarayanan became Suri; Ananthapadmanabhan became Padi; Balasubramanian became Balan; and their daughters became Raji Suri, Priya Padi and Vidya Balan. These early south Indians who migrated to Bombay didn’t forget their roots. Rather, they fulfilled their love and longing for their ancestral homeland by duplicating its ecosystem in their new home.

At the Matunga market, women would bargain vigorously in Tamil. “Not just any Tamil but Palakkad Tamil,” says Gayatri. “Pumpkins were referred to as ellevan (white) or mathan (yellow) pushnikai, instead of the traditional way of calling them vellai or manjal pushnikai.”

Among Tamil-Brahmins, Palakkad Iyers form a unique subset. These were people who could trace their roots to the Palakkad pass between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Palakkad Iyers, or Pattars as they were called, migrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, and felt equally at home speaking Malayalam and Tamil. My father is one, and although he spent his career in Madras (now Chennai), he still multiplies in Malayalam. Palakkad Tamil liberally interspersed with Malayalam is pretty much unrecognizable to locals in Chennai.

Each of us has many layers; many personas. There is the global self that is at home in Cuba, Iceland or Japan. There is a world citizen who skiis in Zermatt, Switzerland, scuba-dives in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, shops in Rue St Honore, Paris, catches a Broadway show in New York, learns tango in Argentina, and drinks sauvignon blanc in New Zealand. Certainly, if you are a reader of this newspaper, you do all these things and more.

Then there is the local self that has to do with family, history, stories and myth. The local self is why we define ourselves as Syrian Christians, Surtis, Bohra Muslims, Parsis, Kamma Naidus, Kulin Kayasthas, Agarwals, Assamese Kalitas, Sindhis or, in my case, a Palakkad Iyer.

The local self has to do with religion and caste, but it goes much deeper than that. It has to do with a small patch of ground from which we have descended—be it Kathiawar, Kanpur, Khajuraho or Karwar. It is the reason we Indians use the word “antecedents” in a meaningful way. It is the reason we have very specific idiosyncrasies and unstated enmities. It is also the reason for our deep-seated superiority complex and insecure chip on the shoulder, for each of us believes that the patch of land we sprung from makes us superior and special in some obscure yet salient way. This is true whether you are a Rajput from Marwar, or a Goan from Colvale. You don’t care about the next province, leave alone the next state. Your insecurities and enmities have to do with your neighbours: people who call the same patch of land by that resonant word—home.

The patch of land that I sprang from plays out in my head in this way. Strip away the politeness; strip away the—sincere, genuine, authentic—belief in plurality, the abhorrence of “narrow domestic walls”; strip away the garden-party persona and pour a few dirty martinis. Then stream some Carnatic instrumental music, if possible violinist T.N. Krishnan’s rendition of Nidhi Sala in that “curly-hair” ragam, Kalyani, from your Dynaudio Xeo 6 speakers. Ask me then who I am and I will tell you, somewhat sheepishly, yet bolstered by the music, that I (like T.N. Krishnan) am a Palakkad Iyer. The music is key; also the martinis. Django Reinhardt or Manitas de Plata will not produce the same answer.

Underneath the “we are all one” persona, I am secretly proud of my roots. I was taught to be. Palakkad Iyers make good “cooks, crooks and civil servants”, said former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan. To that, he could have added musicians because his clan dominates the arts. Actor Vidya Balan; singers Shankar Mahadevan, Usha Uthup, Bombay Sisters, Hariharan and Ranjani-Gayatri: Palakkad Iyers all. My mother “hails” from Tirunellai, a village near Noorani in the Palakkad district.

Palakkad Iyers believe (as do most ethnic groups in India) that we are better than our neighbours. Our women are beautiful and accomplished; our men are fair and charming. We take pride in our food, our character and culture. When Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who is from the same village as my father, died recently, the entire clan mourned his demise. And yes, we drop names in select circles to prove our superiority. This is why India is united—not because we are tolerant, but because we haven’t been able to prove, definitively and without doubt, that As Palakkad Iyers, my family only cared we are better than our neighbours. about proving its superiority to Iyers from Thanjavur, or those pesky Iyengars. If you were a Bengali or Punjabi, we didn’t have a quarrel with you. We would accord you the courtesy of a guest, but you were as foreign as the man from the moon. Our petty hierarchies and feuding quarrels were limited to the neighbours who occupied our land.

One way in which Palakkad Iyers claimed superiority (to other Iyers, let it be said) was through music. The line of musicians who hailed from Palakkad is long. The other was a belief in the curative powers of coconut oil. A third was an affinity for border-dwellers like us.

People who lived in the areas bordering states were intellectually superior, I was told. This is why Dharwad produced exceptional musicians. Living on the border made you mentally nimble. It forced you to square away [off?] different, and sometimes opposing, constructs. It taught you how to settle into a new home but leave your stamp on it. It taught you to bring Madras to Matunga—actually Palakkad to Matunga, but Madras is a better alliteration.


Shoba Narayan’s Tamil when she hangs around her Palakkad cousins is an unrecognizable mishmash of Malayalam, Tamil and a few choice expletives. Write to her at

Profile of Sabyasachi

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

Clad in a khadi kurta-pyjama and Ferragamo flats, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, 37, is having lunch at the ITC Sonar, Kolkata. It is 4pm. We are at the coffee shop. He orders lal maas. I have already eaten. I order jhalmuri.

“You can’t have muri (puffed rice) in a five-star hotel,” protests Mukherjee, who calls himself a “street food and puchka (panipuri) connoisseur”. He dismisses the famous man near the Park Hotel as selling “Marwadi puchka with snow peas and chana in it”. The bestpuchkas, he says, are in south Kolkata, near his parents’ home. But then, every Kolkatan I know says the best puchkas are near where they live.

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Mukherjee is also a “biryani freak” and will only buy it at Rahmania or Nizam’s for their “sinfully greasy biryanis”. Fish, he says, has to be eaten at home. He tastes myjhalmuri and finds, to his surprise, that it is “fantastic”. I bite into gravel while chewing. Perhaps, the hotel buys the dish from the street and sells it to its patrons. We order two more portions.

Started with a Rs. 20,000 loan he took from his sister, Payal, in 2002, Sabyasachi, the label, has grown into a behemoth, employing over 600 craftspeople, 32 assistants, including one from Harvard, and revenue topping Rs. 52 crore in 2011. Part of the reason is Mukherjee’s talent, but a bigger reason is his shrewd business acumen that allows him to spin fantasies out of this City of Joy.

“I am not India’s most talented or creative designer. But I am India’s most influential and powerful commercial designer,” he says matter-of-factly. There is context, of course. I asked him to rate himself. The man doesn’t go around making such pronouncements. Yet his smugness is galling.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

I stare at him from across the table. With his long, wavy hair, Cheshire cat smile, and well-argued opinions, Mukherjee is hardly the angst-ridden, self-destructive designer along the lines of John Galliano or Alexander McQueen. Though perfectly courteous, he doesn’t pander or charm. He doesn’t seek to be liked and, frankly, is a bit too “sorted” for me. But after two days in his company, I end up with grudging respect for his fashion sensibilities. I like his reverence for textiles, his love of artisanal craftsmanship, his pride in being Indian, and the fact that he knows his mind and isn’t afraid to speak it. He slams the Hermès sari, waxes eloquent about the Dabu mud-resist hand-block print techniques of Rajasthan, and bemoans the fact that Indians don’t embrace native handmade traditions with the fervour that they do foreign brands.

“In airports, sometimes I will see African women dressed in their traditional garb—turbans and robes. I know that they will be travelling first-class because they have that confidence,” he says. “Why can’t we Indians take pride in our native clothes?”

When his sister got married, Mukherjee bought her saris from every region of India. His favourites are the weaves from Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, and the south. He has little use for socialites in their bandage dresses. “A Queenie Dhody will never influence fashion the way a Vidya Balan, Rani Mukerji or a Sonia Gandhi can,” he dismisses—somewhat self-servingly, given that these particular celebrities (the first two anyway) wear his saris.

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity: Frida Kahlo, Mira Nair, Deepti Naval,Mallika Sarabhai, the dancer Shobana, Sonal Mansingh, Rekha, Gulzar, Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, and get this—Usha Uthup.

He describes Uthup attending one of his food festivals, wearing a Kanjeevaram sari and Adidas sneakers. “She had glued pieces from her old Kanjeevaram blouses on her sneakers. She could only wear sneakers these days, she said, and wanted them to match her saris. That, I thought, was true innovation,” says Mukherjee. “They looked likeManish Arora shoes but I don’t think she had heard of Manish. She is a true original.” As for the socialites who throng his stores: “They are of no consequence to me. I don’t care if they buy my clothes. I don’t make it for them.”

You sound like a businessman, I accuse. He doesn’t budge. “I am first and foremost a businessman and only then a designer,” he says. Providing a livelihood for his artisans gives him satisfaction and keeps him up at night. When the right time comes, he says he will hire a designer to take over his role and do other things: Design hotels, public spaces; make movies; music; do art projects—all the things that his brutal schedule doesn’t allow him to do. “Sabya has been saying this for years,” says a fashion designer friend of mine.

Mostly, he works. He is at his workshop in Kolkata from 9am-10pm every day, except when he travels. He doesn’t like to socialize—he thinks compliments “mess up your mind”. He relaxes by sleeping; likes to live in isolation, and ploughs all his money back into his business. He rents a one-bedroom apartment that has a large terrace and bathroom to indulge in the two things he likes to do: take long baths and gaze at the stars. “There is so much give and take in my business that I like to relax in isolation,” he says.

His family is intimately involved in the business. His beautiful sister, Payal, is the “bedrock”, says an assistant. His father, a chemical engineer, manages the finances, and his mother, an artist, has been asked to step aside and “take rest”. Mukherjee confesses that he still keeps his splurges on shoes from his dad, and accountant. “I mean, dad knows that his son earns a lot of money but I don’t want him to think that we have changed as people. So I tell my sister that when we do some indulgent shopping, it’s nicer for him not to know. I don’t want him to think he has raised two monsters who have completely lost the plot.”

What about romance, I ask? Are you gay? “Yes,” he says in the tone that we say, “Duh,” this destiny’s child. He is not in a hurry to find a soulmate. That will happen, he says confidently.

We talk style. He likes Dries Van NotenStella McCartneyMarc Jacobsand Coco Chanel: all designers who’ve never pandered to fashion editors. He dismisses Sonam Kapoor as a model and clothes horse rather than a style icon, unlike, say, Zeenat Aman. “What today’s celebrities don’t realize is that you need to be consistent to be an icon. You cannot do sari one day, pants the next and a dress on the third. If you look at style icons, you’ll see that they all have a very consistent style—Audrey Hepburn in her Givenchys; Mrs Kennedy in her sheath dresses or even Madonna in her crucifix and underwear.”

I make a mental note to wear the same style of clothes consistently. But what—sari or sheath dress? That’s the question.

After two days in his company, I go from disdain to dislike to grudging respect to wanting to be liked. I want this man’s respect. Who is your ideal customer, I ask. “The woman who doesn’t need Sabyasachi the brand but understands Sabyasachi the product,” he replies. “Secretly every designer in the world hankers for that kind of customer.”

These days, Shoba Narayan walks up to strangers everywhere and compliments them on their woven saris. Someday she will wear India’s weaves on a regular basis. Write to her at

On Indian Rock music

For Mint here and pasted below.

  • Columns
  • Posted: Thu, Nov 10 2011. 8:54 PM IST
The (rock) music is someplace else
Someplace Else is cozy and dark. It has uncomfortable bar stools that jiggle when you crane your neck to watch the old-timers hum to the songs

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

I am doing something I haven’t done in a long time: asking a perfect stranger out to a nightclub in a strange city. Now that I have your attention, let me tell you that this piece is about music, not blind dates. His name is Prasanna Singh, and I found him online. He writes a blog called Musings of A Manic Manipuri Metalhead, in which he discusses the music scene of Kolkata with headers such as “The PIT v.5—Rising Fists”. I stumbled on his blog when I did a search on “Rock Music Kolkata”.

For a music lover, Kolkata offers a fork. You can walk down the path of Shastriya Sangeet and Rabindra Sangeet, or you can savour its regional take on Western music. Bands such as Fossils, Cactus and Bhoomi blend a love of rock with a distinct local beat and look—like the bright kurtasworn by Bhoomi. Bengali friends in Singapore and New York would play their music, both out of nostalgia and a desire to appear cool.


Atmosphere in spades: The Someplace Else bar is just the right degree of uncomfortable.

Atmosphere in spades: The Someplace Else bar is just the right degree of uncomfortable.


I emailed Singh primarily because I disagreed with him. In his blog, he writes knowledgeably and passionately about the Kolkata music scene and then complains that it is “stuck in some kind of weird limbo”. Perhaps, but no more stuck than other metros, was my contention. At least Kolkata has annual music events such as “The PIT” where nearly 1,000 crazy metal heads come together to hear local bands such as Dark Ritualz, Burnout Syndrome, Sinful Oath, NoyzeAkademi, Evil Conscience, What Escapes Me, Chronic Xorn and Yonsample, all listed in Singh’s blog. 

I said as much to Singh in my email, and later on phone. We got talking. He laid out the music landscape of the city: who the bands were and what their style was. After a while, we got down to nitty-gritty. I was going to be in Kolkata mid-week, I said. Was there any place where I could hear local bands play live? Perhaps I could tag along if he was going club-hopping with his friends? And that, my friends, is how it is done. That’s how you ask a perfect stranger out to a nightclub.

Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

After a pause, he said, “Well, if you want to hear live music, you should go to someplace else.”

“Sorry. Which place else?”

“Someplace Else. It’s the only place in Cal that has live music every day of the week.”

So it came to be that I found myself on a Tuesday night at a cozy lounge bar called Someplace Else, listening to Krosswindz take their devoted but small audience to a musical high. They didn’t play original music that night, but they played popular rock songs with passion and interpretational integrity. Singh stood me up. Well, not really. We were to meet on a Wednesday, but the government declared it a dry day so I was on my own on Tuesday.

Most people go to bars for three things: great atmosphere, live acts and perfectly mixed drinks. Atmosphere has to do with age, coziness and a certain non-intimidating comfort. Wooden floors are an advantage, particularly those discoloured by cigarette butts and spilt drinks. The place has to reek of music and moods, lovers’ quarrels and sweet nothings. It has to “play it” like Casablanca—the movie, not the place. You know what I mean?

The Village Vanguard in New York has this nebulous construct called atmosphere in spades; as do many of the bars on Bourbon Street, New Orleans. They have human proportions. Bangalore’s B-Flat is fairly large, but uses oversize sofas to make the space seem smaller. Blue Frog in Mumbai, on the other hand, is too big and self-consciously stylish for me. It isn’t uncomfortable enough. You know those smoky, catastrophic places that smell bad but somehow persuade you to get drunk enough to dance on the table? Blue Frog makes you stand up straighter and tuck your stomach in.

Someplace Else is cozy and dark. It has uncomfortable bar stools that jiggle when you crane your neck to watch the old-timers hum to the songs. Over dinner, Jayanta Dasgupta, who transforms from a suburban Dad to the smoky voiced, grinning lead guitarist for The Saturday Night Blues band, recounted an evening when his band was playing at Someplace Else. An American man stood right in front. “He was fanning my guitar and I was like, ‘Dude, what you doin’, man? Get off me,’ and the American guy says, ‘You guys are smokin’, man. I am just cooling you down.’” Dasgupta laughed. He reminded me of Peter Pan.

After midnight, I followed the band members of Krosswindz up to the coffee shop at The Park hotel, where they were having pizza. Lead guitarist “Tuki-da”, or Vikramjit Banerjee, told me stories about the Kolkata greats: Usha Uthup, Louiz Banks, Nondon Bagchi, Bertie D’Silva and others. He estimates that Kolkata has about 5,000 informal bands, 80% of whom play in Bangla. “Bengalis like to express themselves,” he said. “Instead of eve teasing, we compose music.”

If what he says is true, Bengali women are lucky indeed.

Two days ago, at a Bangalore book party for my cousin, C.Y. Gopinath, I listened to a roomful of musicians play the blues—Radha Thomas, Ramjee Chandran, the legendary Suresh Shotam, Aman Mahajan and Chandran Sankaran. Call me biased, but if Kolkata is where the music scene is happening now, and Bangalore is the past or the future, depending on whom you ask, my hometown Chennai is where it all began. A disproportionate number of musicians, including the late genius, Dilip Balakrishnan, and every single musician in that Cooke Town home, save Mahajan, could trace their roots to that humid city so suffused with music. Visit it during the upcoming December season and see for yourself.

Shoba Narayan took Prasanna Singh’s permission before writing about him. Singh is engaged to a Manipuri girl and works in IT. Write to her at